The Man Behind the Woman (Pastor) - Word&Way

The Man Behind the Woman (Pastor)

A few Sundays ago, I was sitting in the back pew of an ordinary church in an ordinary Midwestern suburb.

A friend of mine was standing behind the pulpit, and as I watched her I could see her gathering her strength before she preached: pulling it in, storing it up, before the powerful words flowed out of her female body.

Angela Denker

She preached with the assurance of one who is called, and also one who I had watched earlier that morning doing all the things: gathering up the kids for a children’s sermon, setting out chairs for the church picnic, collaborating with her male colleague on sacramental duties and glad-handing parishioners.

In this very same moment, as I watched my brave and dutiful friend gather herself to preach, I saw a dark-haired man come in the side door to the back of the sanctuary.

He had an air of quiet confidence, assuredness, and poise. I only looked at him for a second; we don’t really know one another, but I recognized him from her photos on social media.

The Pastor’s Husband

When I realized who he was, my brain started to tune in intently, thinking about the two of them: her behind the tall wooden pulpit, adorned with green paraments and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit in her calling to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ; him here in the back, their children taken care of, here, present, on a Sunday morning to worship God and listen to his wife preach.

So simple. So revolutionary. So threatening to many American Christians.

In that very moment, I knew that I had to write about these men.

And maybe you’re thinking: “Oh, I know some great clergy couples!”

Me, too. But this isn’t the story of pastor men married to pastor women.

And I would be remiss not to mention the lovely men and women who are married to pastor men. And the lovely women who are married to pastor women. And the awesome non-binary folks who preach and support and love clergy.

All of these stories need to be told. Today, though, I’m going to tell this story, because 1) I think it’s important and 2) because it’s also my story. This is the story of cis, straight men who are married to cis-women Pastors — and why they matter.

Photo by Megan Lideen, taken from my ordination service in 2013

I’m not telling you this story because I think pastor-husbands need a special pat on the back, like people often do to men who are out alone with their children in public. I’m telling you this story because I think these men offer an alternative to the toxic, violent, and insecure masculinity that’s currently plaguing the American Church.

I’m telling you this story because the number one question I get when people find out I’m a pastor and married to a man is: “Oh, is your husband a pastor also?”

When people find out you’re a woman and a pastor, you often don’t make sense in a religious culture still steeped in gender hierarchy with men on top. So they try to make sense of you, especially in conservative or Evangelical Christian contexts.

Women who are pastors are a threat to the traditional order and gender hierarchy of the white American Christian world. They threaten to upset the apple cart of male power and hegemony. That’s why the guardians of complementarianism, the ideology that says male gender dominance is God-ordained and biblically sanctioned, are so willing to die on the hill of male superiority and sanctions on women preachers and teachers in the church, even in the face of rampant male clergy sexual abuse of women and girls, and male violence against women throughout conservative American Christianity (most recently evidenced in the sexual misconduct investigation of purported anti-sex-trafficking activist Tim Ballard, a darling of the Christian Right who was featured in the 2023 film Sound of Freedom).

Women pastors have thus for many years shouldered a heavy load of suspicion and mockery and denigration, so far as threatening our right to exist. (As a friend of mine says, when people tell her that they “don’t believe in women pastors,” I’m literally standing right here!)

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Nearly every time I’ve written an article for a national news outlet or appeared on cable or broadcast news, a majority of the angry and hateful comments I receive are rooted in a rejection of women pastors in general, regardless of what I had to say.

Sometimes, if women pastors are married to a male pastor, people will think: “OK, well, I guess that’s all right. I guess that makes sense.” (It doesn’t surprise me that New York Times columnist Tish Harrison Warren is one of the few women clergy members granted a broad national audience that includes conservative Christians. She’s part of a conservative denomination that split from the Episcopal Church over LGBTQ rights, and she’s married to a male clergyman with whom she often pastors. I’m not dismissing Warren’s witness, but her background demonstrates my point that American Christians are most comfortable with women pastors who are married to male pastors, and who uphold traditional hierarchical views on gender and sexuality).

I think that’s why, when I worked with a male pastor 30 years my senior in Southern California, I was often asked if the two of us were married. Despite our age gap, for some folks, it was the only way my presence on that church stage made sense.

Enter the Role of the Non-Pastor Pastor-Husbands

My husband, who works in a male-dominated STEM field, often tells colleagues and associates that he’s married to a Pastor. And even now in our progressive Midwestern city, I imagine sometimes people might be a little baffled by that for him, too, just like they can’t quite figure me out when I say I’m a pastor, and my husband isn’t. Maybe it would be easier if he just said I was a writer. Or, much easier, in the days before seminary, when he told people I was a sportswriter. That generally got a more excited reaction.

Still, just the fact that my husband bears witness to the truth that a man like him, professionally successful in a traditionally male-dominated field outside the church, could be married to a social-deviant (haha) woman pastor like me means he’s breaking down barriers in his own quiet way. He’s signaling to his male colleagues that my role as a preacher doesn’t diminish his own masculinity. That he’s comfortable and confident enough in his own skin to trust that the two of us and our callings can coexist. That his listening to me preach and teach about God doesn’t somehow mean that our family is “out of order,” and he’s not the “strong, Christian man” God made him to be. He’s just fine — and he can even still dunk a basketball at age 40.

Instead of worrying about our marriage’s prescribed gender hierarchy — my non-pastor husband and I take tasks and decisions together as they come. We pray together. Neither one of us has the automatic, final word when it comes to family decisions. Hopefully, instead, God does — to the best of our discernment.

He mows the lawn because I’m honestly terrified of the self-propelling feature that powers our lawnmower quickly across the grass. He shovels most of the snow, too, and given his career background, does most of the large home improvement tasks and fixes. I generally take the lead on cooking and cleaning, though he can do both of those things, too, just as I can occasionally water the grass or do outdoor or traditionally “male” tasks as needed. I do all the laundry, though. It just works for us.

I’m more comfortable than him sharing about my faith and leading our family when it comes to prayers or teaching about religion (I mean, I did spend three years of academic theological study in seminary), but that doesn’t mean my husband doesn’t pray, too, or know his way around a hymnal.

I think the most powerful thing is, though, he knows he doesn’t have to prove it. He’s comfortable and confident in who God has called him to be as a man and a clergy spouse; in the same way that he supports who God has called me to be as a woman and a clergy person. We’re both ever-vigilant in figuring out the best balance of those callings, particularly at a time in our lives when our kids’ youth sports are increasingly encroaching upon Sunday mornings, and I’m trying to balance writing with non-traditional parish ministry work.

I’m not saying the two of us are ready to write a book on ministry life with a clergywoman and a non-clergy male spouse. He prefers to draw plans and calculate equations, or play chess and dream up basketball out-of-bounds plays. We’re still figuring it out — every day — moment by moment — together, with the help of God.

But maybe that’s the point. Sometimes, when it comes to doing ministry in this ever-changing and shifting landscape of American Christianity in the 21st Century, what matters is that there are men confident and discerning enough, mature enough in their own faith in the Jesus whose resurrection was first proclaimed by women(!) — to just be the man behind the woman (pastor).

I think that’s why I felt so moved when I watched my friend’s husband sneak into the side pew as she prepared herself to preach. His silent witness was an indication of a different way ahead, a new day possible for an American Church rising out of the terrible wreckage of purity culture and hypocritical, flawed, fallen “Godly men.” These non-clergy pastor-husbands give me hope amidst the fog of all the angry letters I’ll probably get about this post, too, that the world my sons will inherit will be one in which men are proud to grow in their faith and life from the guidance of women preachers in the Church, like me.

Here’s hoping.


Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist. She has written for many publications, including Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and FORTUNE magazine. Denker has appeared on CNN, BBC, and SkyNews to share her research on politics and Christian Nationalism in the U.S. Her book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump, was the 2019 Silver Foreword Indies award-winner for political and social sciences. The revised edition of Red State Christians, subtitled: A Journey into White Christian Nationalism and the Wreckage it leaves behindcame out Aug. 16 and is currently available everywhere books are sold.